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Wednesday, February 8,2012

Keeper of the flame

Simone — daughter of the legendary Nina Simone — honors her mother´s musical legacy

by Lawrence Cosentino

The magnificent jazz, pop and soul singer Nina Simone pumped so much blood and skill into a song that all other versions shriveled to pale little peas in your mind, even if the original artist was Bob Dylan or The Beatles.

Think what it felt like to Nina Simone’s daughter.

The powerful singer and Broadway star, who simply calls herself Simone, visits the Wharton Center next week for “Simone on Simone,” a program devoted to her mother’s music.

“I thought my mother had written every single song she ever sang,” Simone said, in a phone interview. “Of course she wrote ‘Just Like a Woman!’” 

People with no filial relation felt the same way. Nina Simone recast the Dylan song as a fragile ballad, dusted with harp and strings, suspended over a gritty gospel groove. She sealed the steal by changing Dylan’s third-person “she” to “I” in the last verse.

While the rest of us marveled at Nina Simone’s ability to take charge of a song, her daughter took it for granted. “I heard her sing ‘Here Comes the Sun’ first, and then when I heard the Beatles do it, I was like, ‘Ewww,’” Simone said, laughing.

Simone the younger, born Lisa Celeste Stroud in 1962, is ripe for a reckoning with her mother’s mighty legacy. She’s already conquered Broadway, having laid down a definitive Mimi in the 1996-98 national tour of “Rent” and nailed the title role of Disney’s “Aida” in 2002-2003, among other star turns on the boards.

Now she’s applying her powerful pipes to a touring show of freewheeling jazz quartet arrangements based on her big-band CD, “Simone on Simone.” 

There was no agonizing over whether to do “Simone on Simone.”

“I knew I was going to do this sooner or later,” she said. “When I was culling the songs, it was a very simple, fast process. I’ve been living with these songs all my life. It’s just a matter of which ones I want to do first.”

But Simone’s polished, ebullient performances of her mother’s songs belie the grief she felt while working on the project.

“When I got in the studio, I realized that a lot of the songs I chose to put on the CD, I’d never performed alone,” she said. “I always sang along with my Mom.”

Nina Simone died in 2003.

“I can’t just call her on the phone anymore,” Simone said. “I’m it.”

More than anyone, Simone knew how her mother could give a song a transfusion of soul and authenticity, turning a song as cheesy as “Feelings” into a raw suicide note.

“Feeling Good,” a highlight of the younger Simone’s CD and live shows, is a case in point. Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricuss wrote the song for a 1965 Broadway show called “The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd,” but who remembers that now?

“Mommy took it and turned it into what is now a standard,” Simone said. Poor Anthony Newley. The Wikipedia entry on “Feeling Good” goes straight to bullet-point 1: “Nina Simone version,” followed by bullet-point 2, “samples” of same.

“From Michael Bublé to Oleta Adams, Jennifer Hudson and on and on, everybody does the song, and when they do it, they do it Mommy’s way,” Simone said. 

(By the way, Nina Simone also recast Frank Sinatra’s chest-thumper “My Way” with swaying hips and rocking congas, and ran off with that one as well.)

Simone the younger is on firmest ground exuding the upbeat confidence of “Feeling Good,” but steers away from the politically charged songs her mother wrote, including “Mississippi Goddam,” a searing response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala.

“I’m not singing protest songs,” Simone said. “I’m not singing about politics — at least, not right now I’m not. But my views about the social and political environment in which we’re living very much mirror my mother’s.”

For now, the lyrics of “Feeling Good” — “this old world is a new world and a bold world for me” —  suit her well. The “Simone on Simone” CD and tour have sparked a surge of creativity, helped along by a deep immersion in yoga. She’s working on a new CD of original songs, to be released in 2012.

“When I imagine myself, it’s like a kid,” she said. “I literally imagine myself standing on the world, and the world has sunglasses on — not the people, the planet.”

She recently uncorked one of the new songs, “All is Well,” at a New Mexico gig, and liked the audience´s reaction.

“They were singing it back to me,” she said. “I got a glimpse into some of the joy that I will be able to bring to the world in due time, to add to the legacy my mother has already begun.”

Simone

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16

Wharton Center´s Pasant Theatre

$15-38 (800) WHARTON

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